The world pretty much agrees that you now spell the Chinese province Sichuan exactly as I just did, though previously we encountered on old maps and in encyclopedias Szechwan, Szuchuan, Szechuan etc., and I guess that I miss the old z factor that evokes for me the exotic spices of their regional foods. I have never been there, however, but I was just to its south in Yunnan Province where I was most impressed with its plants, scenery and the near-perfect blend of the women's southeastern Asian tribal mixtures. Of course I would like to visit Sichuan, which is located in the heart of China – if a little south – but equidistant from the eastern-to-the-western borders of the country. The original name is an abbreviation of Si Chuanlu, or the “four circuits of the rivers and gorges,” and indeed it includes the mountain of Minya Konka (now called Gongga) at 24,790' (7,556m)* down to the sweltering rice-growing regions along the Yangtze.
*In 1929 the explorer Joseph Rock goofed on his calculations and proclaimed it to be 30,250' (9,220m), making it the highest mountain in the world. Rock cabled the National Geographic Society to make the announcement, but fortunately they re-checked before publication.
Sichuan is famous for its biodiversity, and if China can be called “The Mother of All Gardens,” then Sichuan is certainly “The Mother of All China.” The province is well-represented in my garden, and if you wander amongst the plants you will probably not need more than ten steps to do the Sichuan hop. Not far from my chair in the office is my favorite Rhododendron orbiculare, introduced in 1904 by E.H. Wilson. Nearby is Abies squamata, the beautiful “Flaky-bark fir” that rivals Acer griseum for exfoliation. A. squamata holds the altitude record for any fir at 15,419' (4700m), nevertheless it prospers at my 150' above sea level nursery, and even at Arboretum Trompenburg in the Netherlands at an altitude below sea level!
The squamata, griseum and orbiculare mentioned above have provided fodder for previous Flora Wonder Blogs, so I won't rehash them today. So, what else is there in my garden from Sichuan? That discussion must include the Rhododendrons, though many of the species can be found in neighboring provinces as well. One such is R. strigillosum, a slow-growing shrub (for me) that eventually can grow large. I learned to identify it because of its bristly young shoots, and indeed its specific name is derived from Latin strigillosus. Another key to its identification is that it blooms early (February-March), and it is sometimes included in winter gardens, such as in the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. The species is renowned for trusses of brilliant crimson bell-shaped flowers, but in my experience it prefers afternoon shade. My plant ducks beneath an enormous Chamaecyparis xanthocyparis 'Pendula' so it gets its shade, but its lack of vigor is perhaps due to the competition. Strigillosum is one parent of the fantastic hybrid 'Taurus' bred by the late plantsman, Dr. Frank Mossman. He was very generous with me early in my career – particularly with Japanese maples – and a vigorous 'Taurus' resides in his memory on my front lawn, growing happily in full sun. The other parent is the crappy R. 'Jean Marie de Montague' which does not tolerate full sun when we reach 100 degrees F, as we do every year.
Another Sichuan native is Rhododendron williamsianum which was discovered by E.H. Wilson (AKA Ernest “Chinese” Wilson) in 1908. I am late to the party as I have only one small specimen in my collection, but a great place to see mature plants is at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, Washington. The wooded path to the garden entrance features some sizeable plants, and I wonder if the person responsible for placing them there could ever have imagined that one day they would grow into each other? Likewise in the rock-garden section where they've grown well into the path. With their compact dome shapes they really can't be pruned, so I suppose re-routing the path is the only solution. One of the charms of the species is that the pretty pink flowers are relatively large in relation to the leaf size, and certainly Flora was in a good mood the day she bestowed it to its very limited area in Sichuan.
R. williamsianum was named to honor J.C. Williams (1861-1939) of Caerhays Castle, a Cornish gardening enthusiast who sponsored various expeditions (Wilson and Forrest) in China. The biography of Williams makes for a good read, and one interesting quirk was that he disliked motor cars because they went too fast for him to see things in hedges. Also noteworthy was that at the time of Forrest's 1924-26 expedition, Williams thought that all the good areas for Rhododendron discoveries were exhausted, so his interest changed to Camellias. Finally, it is surprising that when E.H. went to China in 1907 he had changed employers, with the R. williamsianum discovery coming as Wilson toiled for the Arnold Arboretum. There were no hard feelings, and in fact a close relationship developed between the Arnold and Caerhays. As is so often the case with plants, their “story” is one of the great rewards of horticulture.
My Grandfather was on a plant-hunting trip to Sichuan in 1983, and growing among the Rhododendrons, Meconopsis, Rodgersia and more was a Corydalis with dainty light-blue flowers. He dug out a piece and put it in his pack – probably illegal from China's point of view – then made it past US Customs – also illegal – and after the long trip he potted it up back home. It thrived and eventually he divided it, and a few years later he sold a crop of 'Blue Panda' along with his Rhododendrons. It was so-named because he collected it in Sichuan's panda reserve which he recalls was a “wet, cold, clammy place.” After having distributed 'Blue Panda' for a few years he discovered a large perennial nursery planned on producing it via tissue culture with a patent. Grandfather thought that he should get a piece of the action, and eventually they worked out a contract. He was pleased to receive his royalty checks, over $30,000 to date...for doing nothing. There are two problems with this patent holder: 1) you cannot patent a plant from the wild and 2) you cannot patent a plant that has previously been distributed. Since the horse was already out of the barn, go ahead and propagate 'Blue Panda' if you want, and tell them I said it was ok. Even though I despise this type of malfeasance – all too common in horticulture today – I nevertheless buy my 'Blue Panda' starts from this offending company.
A quick story for Flora Wonder readers from the Northwest: my Grandfather used to travel a lot, and he always wore a cheap watch in case it was lost or damaged. When he was in the area of the panda reserve the locals were fascinated with his time-piece which had the smiling face of the crew-cut TV and appliance monger, Tom Peterson. One of the late Peterson's pitches was that if you bought a TV or refrigerator you would get a free watch. More than one Chinaman assumed that the face was that of Chairman Mao, their Great Helmsman. What's most funny is that the Tom Peterson watch was manufactured in...China.
And speaking of my Grandfather, he always chuckled when we saw a member of the Stachyurus genus, that to him the generic name sounded like a female reproductive organ. S. salicifolius was introduced from Sichuan as recently as the 1990's, and according to Hillier in the Manual of Trees and Shrubs it was by the Japanese plantsman Mikinori Ogisu who was famous for furthering the study of Epimedium as well as collecting them. The generic name salicifolius is due to its long, narrow willow-like leaves which dangle from arching stems. Even better are the dropping cream-yellow flower racemes which appear in early march, and I have also seen the species used in winter gardens along with the better-known S. praecox. My start came from the relatively short-lived Heronswood Nursery, and I know that the former owner is now peddling a cultivar – 'Sparkler' – for the Lowe's box-store chain, and supposedly it is more floriferous than the type. Hmm...I'd like to acquire one, to compare it with the straight species that I grow, and I wonder if bestowing it to cultivarhood is nothing more than a marketing ploy. The plant is commonly listed as Sparkler® “Willow-Leaf Stachyurus,” and botanically as Stachyurus salicifolia – unlike Hillier's salicifolius – 'Mon Emeri'. What's with all the gibberish? What does ® mean anyway? Am I allowed to propagate and sell it or not? Like with the aforementioned Corydalis 'Blue Panda', I'm tempted to propagate and then invite the “authorities” to do with me whatever they want. I am not against the concept of patent protection, but with plants I simply don't like it; and by the way, Flora is on my side.
Vertrees is correct in his book when he says, “The beauty of this tree is the unusual foliage which is unlike any other species of Acer.” In fact the plant it most closely resembles is marijuana, not that I've seen the two side by side. As I said, pentaphyllum can be grown from soft wood cuttings under mist, but we prefer to graft (as low as possible) on vigorous Acer rubrum rootstock. It's interesting that the combination is compatible since pentaphyllum is in the Section Pentaphylla and rubrum is in the Section Rubra. I intentionally left an older tree outside in winter to test its hardiness, hoping that the rubrum rootstock would give it a boost. The pentaphyllum species takes a long time to leaf out in spring – late May for us – but eventually in June I was certain that the top was dead, as live rubrum suckers began to sprout from the base. Our coldest was only 8 degrees above zero, so now I keep all of my plants indoors.
Acer sterculiaceum is commonly known as the “Himalayan maple” as it is native to Kashmir, Nepal and Bhutan. The subspecies franchetii is the Chinese version, and it is native to Sichuan and surrounding provinces. I used to grow trees of seedling origin, but the USDA zone 5 species was a tough sell due to the difficulty of pronouncing its name. One of the seedlings produced a tree with fantastic variegated foliage, 'Joseph's Coat', but alas the variegation wasn't stable. Seedlings from 'Joseph's Coat' were germinated one year, but all foliage remained green. Also, this subsp. franchetii is closely related to Acer tsinlingense (AKA tsinglingense) which comes from Qinling Mountain in Gansu Province, a maple I saw for the first time in Belgium at the Arboretum Wespelaar. DeBeaulieu in An Illustrated Guide to Maples says that A. sterculiaceum and its subspecies franchetii are difficult to raise from seed, but they can be grafted one upon the other. I successfully grafted it onto Acer pseudoplatanus, which it almost resembles anyway. They grew well, but I didn't keep any around long-term to see how the mature union would fare.
I've long had a love-hate relationship with the Mahonia genus. At their best they can be wonderful shrubs with bright yellow flowers that get the hummingbirds stirred up. At their worst they can produce dead branches and old brown leaves that never seem to fall. For the first time we will be selling M. gracilipes, a fall bloomer whose flowers are purple-red on the outer petals, with the inner petals creamy white. The foliage is attractive being blue-green on the upper surface, and gray-white beneath. The specific name is due to the narrow leaflets, coming from the Latin gracilis for “slender,” just as you have a gracilis muscle on the inner side of your thigh. Mahonia gracilipes was introduced in 1980 by Englishman Roy Lancaster on Emei Shan (mountain), Sichuan.
There are dozens more Sichuan natives in my plant collection, but I'll end the “hop” for now. I once wasted some time by tabulating the species on my Master Plant List. I forget the exact results, but Japan was home to the most, with China second, and in particular Sichuan. I'll probably never make it to that province, so I'm happy that it has come to me.